Last Saturday, June 7, I went for my first drive outside the city in my car. Friday after work I joined many of the local staff for food and a few beers, and I stayed up later than I had planned. So I didn't leave home at the crack of dawn! I got good directions from colleagues at work. The most challenging part of the drive would be to get out of Tashkent on the correct road, and I had seen how to do that. The only other issue, they explained to me, was that the shortest route went through Kazakhstan for about thirty miles. Recently the Uzbek border guards had closed that road because too many Uzbeks were taking advantage of lower prices across the border and the government is trying to restrict imports. Sure enough, after an hour of driving I got to a place where the sign said to go right for Samarqand, but there was a big barrier across the road and a guard with a machine gun. So I pulled up to the barrier and said "Ya Amerikansky diplomat" and showed them my passport. The guard took my passport, wrote something in his book, then waved me through. The next half hour of driving was quick because there were only a handful of cars. I passed by a large bazaar that was closed, apparently due to lack of business.
Shortly before 3:00 I arrived in Samarqand, followed my directions and got within a half mile of my hotel. I didn't see it and had to asks for directions three times, but each response got me closer. The hotel manager was expecting me and showed me my room. The room was small but the hotel was very pleasant, clean and bright with a big courtyard in the center. It was located on a quiet street 100 meters from the main attraction in the center of the city. After dumping my luggage I decided that it was lunch time and went to a cafe out on the main street. They showed me to a table upstairs under cover but outside, overlooking the street below. I happily ordered laghman (noodles with vegetables, meat and broth), a salad and some dumplings. After paying $2 for my lunch it was time to start exploring the city.
Early in the last millenium, Samarqand (often spelled Samarkand) was an important station on the silk road . The city has been sacked many times over the past three thousand years, most thoroughly by Genghis Khan in 1220, and periodically abandoned by most of its residents. But in 1370 Amir Timur decided to make it the capital city for an empire that briefly stretched from Istanbul to Delhi. He and his successors frantically built monuments suitable for the capital of the world. Some of them were built too hurriedly and soon collapsed, but others remain today.
The most famous site is called the Registan. There may not be another public square in the world surrounded on three sides by medieval and older structures of this magnitude. The three medressas (Islamic seminaries) were completed in 1420, 1636 and 1660. The later two replaced mosques that didn't survive.
I paid my two dollar entryfee and started to look around. Then I was approached by an army officer who asked me if I wanted to go up to the top of one of the Minarets. I asked how much, he said five dollars, I said three and we had a deal. Obviously the architect put a high value on the appearance of these buildings from the square. The portals are perhaps their biggest, most impressive features.
Inside the medressas, each has a large courtyard surrounded by two floors of small rooms that were dormitories and classrooms for hundreds of students. Each medressa had a small mosque.
There are mosques and mausaleums (is that the correct plural?) scattered all around the city. I went to the mausoleum where the great Amir Timur, his two sons and two grand sons are all buried. Here an attendent also encouraged me to walk up the steep narrow steps of a minaret to see the view. Much of the inside of mausoleum is gilded with gold.
Now my legs were tired from walking up the minarets and dusk was approaching, so I returned to the hotel, discovered that although the satellite TV brought in 200 stations none were very interesting. I watched a football match (soccer game) for a while before returning to the same cafe for a late dinner.
Sunday morning I had an omelet for breakfast in the courtyard of the hotel, then set off for more exploring. My first stop was the bazaar. It was similar to Tashkent bazaars except that more of the women here were wearing colorful dresses. Much of the bazaar was too crowded to take pictures, but I found some quieter corners.
The next stop was the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, built around 1400 but no solidly enough. Some of it collapsed quickly, more in an 1897 earthquake. Now little remains except the portal and high domes that stood around the edges.
This stand in the courtyard of the mosque held a seventh century Qoran.
The next stop was a street of tombs called Shahr-i-Zindah. Here I saw hundreds of tourists, mostly Uzbeks but some speaking other languages, viewing the monuments to their ancient leaders. The pedestrian street goes for half a mile or more up a hill, lined on both sides with a variety of styles of tombs -- none of them humble.
Adjoining this street is a modern cemetary on a hill overlooking the city. I wandered past, then admired some of the modern sculpture adorning Samarqand. There were statues of the Amirs, and camel processesions, but I also liked some of the more modest works.
Now it was time for lunch. I found a cafe in a park. After lunch I went for a ride on the ferris wheel to see the view, then I meandered back to my hotel to retrieve my car. The drive home was uneventful (Uzbekistan has better roads than Georgia and Moldova -- a bit bumpy but four lanes for all but a few kilometers). The border guards hardly looked at my passport as I zipped through Kazakhstan and I was home just beore dusk.